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Originally published July 12, 2013 at 11:30 AM | Page modified July 12, 2013 at 10:23 PM

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Riesling: The grape that got Washington going is back, better than ever

Today, Chateau Ste. Michelle makes more riesling than any other winery in the world.

Special to The Seattle Times

Three to try

Chateau Ste. Michelle 2012 dry riesling, Columbia Valley, $10: A superb dry riesling made by Aussie winemaker Wendy Stuckey. It doesn't get much better than this in the New World.

Pacific Rim Winemakers 2011 sweet riesling, Columbia Valley, $11: An off-dry wine from a large Washington winemaker. This has gorgeous flavors and is perfect with a steaming bowl of pho or Thai curries.

Diversion NV riesling, Washington, $15: A slightly sweet wine with terrific balance and just enough sweetness to pair well with Tex-Mex or Indian curry.

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RIESLING HAS come to Washington, and the world has followed.

International winemakers and riesling enthusiasts are in Woodinville and Seattle for the Riesling Rendezvous, a three-day celebration beginning Sunday.

"Riesling always was and remains one of the world's most exciting wines," says Stuart Pigott. The British author is the world's foremost authority on the grape — and is so in love with riesling that he moved to Germany in the mid-1990s just to be surrounded by it.

Thanks in no small part to Chateau Ste. Michelle, Washington is a famous riesling producer, but all of this has happened in a remarkably short time.

In 1985, riesling was Washington's No. 1 grape, but it quickly fell out of favor. By 1999, it lagged far behind chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon in importance, and mostly was made into a less-than-serious sweet wine.

Then a famous German winemaker came to town. Ernst Loosen spotted an overlooked opportunity in the Columbia Valley, so he met with Ste. Michelle and proposed a collaboration. Eroica was the result, a riesling first released in 2000 and sold at the then-outrageous price of $20. Even Ste. Michelle wasn't sure it would fly.

"Ernie talked with such enthusiasm about the vineyards of Washington," says Ted Baseler, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates CEO. "We thought it would be a nice project. We didn't envision it as some kind of massive turnaround in the riesling category."

What a comeback it has been. Production has more than tripled since 1999, with Washington wineries crushing a record 36,700 tons of riesling last fall. The result for Chateau Ste. Michelle is astonishing: 1.2 million cases of riesling from the 2012 harvest (and that doesn't count another 200,000 cases from its other brands). Today, Chateau Ste. Michelle makes more riesling than any other winery in the world.

And it's not just about quantity.

Dan Berger, a renowned California wine writer and co-founder of the International Riesling Foundation, calls Germany the clear champion in crafting the world's greatest riesling. But Washington, he says, is a stalwart No. 2.

"You could make a strong case for the Columbia Valley being one of the world's premier riesling-growing regions," he says. "Washington rieslings hold their own against rieslings anywhere."

Ste. Michelle and Loosen started the Riesling Rendezvous in 2008. Three years ago, the riesling world came to Washington — and was stunned. After 300 experts blind-tasted dry rieslings, the consensus winner was revealed: Chateau Ste. Michelle.

"There was a gasp around the room," Pigott says with delight. "And, by the way, it was $9.99. All the European winemakers fell off their chairs. They couldn't believe it."

Riesling has matured even more in the past three years. So this time around, the riesling world might be stunned by the likes of Michigan, Idaho or even New Jersey.

Pigott's prediction: "There will be one or two 'gasp' moments."

Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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